In this list, religious horror isn’t just about God, the devil, and a vial of holy water.
By Mary Beth McAndrewsPublished October 24, 2021
October is defined in the Webster dictionary as “31 days of horror”. Don’t bother looking for it; it is true. Most people think that means highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR we’ve taken that up a scary notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article on the best religious-themed horror movies is part of our ongoing series 31 days of horror lists.
Religious horror films, as most Western audiences know, are dominated by Catholic imagery, from crucifixes and vials of holy water to Bibles with tattered pages and worn priests. God and the devil are fighting for our mortal souls, and the heroic priests on screen are the only ones capable of fighting in this battle. If you’ve grown up a Catholic like me, these movies are terrifying reminders of what might lie ahead after death.
But if you’ve grown up with a little less of that signature guilt in your head every Sunday, the typical religious horror may not keep you from sleeping at night. Fortunately, religious horror is a lot more diverse than it looks. From fighting apocalyptic cults to Korean mysticism, filmmakers around the world are using their experience with different versions of faith to create horror beyond the reach of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
So say your prayers to the deity you worship and immerse yourself in devilish religious horror films chosen by Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Jacob Trussell, Rob Hunter, Anna Swanson, Meg Shields and myself.
10. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Who needs God when you have Satan worshiping neighbors who want you to carry the devil’s baby? Roman Polanski’s horror classic in 1968 Rosemary baby weaves themes on Christianity and the occult like the titular Rosemary (Mia farrow) is reduced to nothing but a fleshy vessel for satanic offspring. But here there are no exorcisms or religious rites. Instead, the crucifixes are hung upside down and the Bible is replaced with books on Satanism. There is no religious intervention, and evil is capable of plaguing the Renaissance Revival building. The end. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
9. Prince of Darkness (1987)
Let me first say that this late 80s gem remains a somewhat underrated banger of Jean Charpentier. Sometimes it’s intoxicating stuff thanks to a crazy premise – the devil is green matter, and students study it in a church basement! – and some of the performances are rough, but it’s impossible not to love the nightmare of fun Carpenter unleashes. Add to one of his best scores, a formidable duo of Donald Pleasure and Victor wong, and an entertaining crane, and you have a terrific horror movie.
The religious angle is why we’re here, though, and it’s one of the film’s brightest moments. Its very nature suggests a world where God and the devil exist, but rather than transforming into bland exorcisms and familiar rhythms, it approaches the concept through great science and nightmares from the future. The idea that what we call the devil is just a thin piece of glass away from entering our world is terrifying and exciting, and Carpenter captures that possibility beautifully with imagery that is both grotesque and haunting. Always also one of the best endings of the maestro. (Rob Hunter)
8. The Witch (2015)
Robert eggers‘2015 directorial debut The witch lays bare the hypocrisy of religion and the consequences of being too pious. Here, Patriarch William (Ralph ineson) and his family are expelled from their village for being too pious and at odds with the relaxed practices of their leaders. Instead of admitting his own mistakes or trying to come to terms with his peers, William takes his family out into the wild to start their own colony. But here, faith does not follow and the family begins to believe that God has abandoned them. They are constantly on the lookout for someone or something to blame for their woes, never taking the time to think about how their beliefs got them into this dire situation. Instead, they look to their own family, especially Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) whom they accuse of being a witch. Their hypocrisy makes their chaotic spiral all the more delicious. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
7. The Devils (1971)
Where do I even start Devils? Ken russellThe 1971 film is a feverish, sultry and disgusting descent into Catholic madness, all centered around a convent and their extremely sexy priest Urbain Grandier (Olivier Roseau). The kicker: everything is based on real facts. Grandier was a real priest who was killed after the sexually suppressed Mother Superior (played by Vanessa Redgrave in the film) accused him of witchcraft. Russell uses these real events and pushes them to orgiastic extremes to create a critique of the hypocrisy and lavish lifestyle of the Catholic Church.
He is Blasphemy: the movie while nuns tear pages from the Bible and open their clothes on the altar, while priests in shimmering outfits sexually assault them under the guise of exorcism. Additionally, Redgrave, dressed as a nun who dreams of being the Virgin Mary, licks the blood from Grandier-as-Jesus’ nipple. No wonder this film was banned after its release. Thanks to Shudder, the movie became a lot more accessible and more people were exposed to Russell’s crazy and perfect cinematic masterpiece. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
6. Kwaidan (1964)
Kwaidan is a 1964 Japanese anthology film that deals with, well, the kwaidan, or “ghost stories” about supernatural experiences of everyday life. Belief in spirits is part of some religions in Japan, such as Buddhism and Shintoism, a nature-based religion that has been practiced in the country for thousands of years. But a segment of Kwaidan, in particular, most strongly touches aspects of religious horror: “Hoichi the Earless”.
Here, Hoichi is an attendant in a Buddhist temple who plays the biwa and is known for his singing voice. But when the spirit of a samurai begins to appear in Hoichi, a priest realizes that Hoichi is in great danger. The spirit wants to take Hoichi to the grave with him, warns the priest. To protect the servant, the priest paints a prayer, the Heart Sutra, on Hoichi’s face to protect him. The segment illustrates both the power of these beliefs as well as the power of the spirits that occupy our world. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
Related topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists
Mary Beth McAndrews thinks the images found are good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she’s not writing, she searches for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She she)